Saints, dead or alive, are models
By Father Paul Turner
Catholic Key Scripture Columni
The Good News for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, November 1, 1998
Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14
1 John 3:1-3
A fascination with saints distinguishes Catholics from other religious bodies. Lose something? Pray to St. Anthony. Going on a trip? Pray to St. Christopher. Uncooperative children? Go to St. Monica. Can't sell your house? Buy a statue of St. Joseph and bury him upside down facing the street. But get it blessed by a priest first. Got a hopeless problem? Try St. Jude. Trouble with your eyes? Call on St. Lucy. Headache? St. Denis. We erect statues, wear medals, and stuff holy cards in our prayer books. The saints occupy middle management in the reign of God. Like the specialists whose offices line the corridor of a medical building, they're useful if you go to the right department.
All Saints Day seems like a natural for Catholics. It gives us an easy way to acknowledge the whole bunch of them at once, like Secretaries' Day.
The origins of All Saints Day go back to the fourth century. Churches in the east (like Syria, not like New Jersey) got the idea to celebrate all the martyrs on the first Sunday after Pentecost. Once they had celebrated the death and rising of Christ and the sending of the Holy Spirit, it seemed only natural to celebrate the witness of those who gave their lives to enjoy the eternal blessedness promised by Jesus in the Eucharist.
In Rome they picked a different day, but with a good reason. Pope Boniface IV had just received possession of one of the greatest pagan shrines in Rome, the Pantheon. Built in the first century in the shape of a circle, it boasts an enormous dome reaching up toward a circle at the top of the building, open to the sky. Today it is the oldest building intact in the city of Rome. This temple to all the gods (pan-theon) was rededicated on May 13, 609, to all the martyrs, and on that day the people brought the relics of the martyrs in procession from the catacombs into the Pantheon. They celebrated All Saints Day every year on May 13 to commemorate the event. But in 835 Pope Gregory IV moved the date to November 1, probably because it was near the end of the calendar year, when people naturally turned their thoughts toward death. It then became a feast on the calendar for the entire Roman Catholic Church. In the United States the eve of All Saints has become a secular holiday which gives hell a night before heaven gets its day. Practically speaking, Halloween simply opens the Christmas shopping season.
All Saints Day has had a confusing past and its present is swallowed up by secularism and devotionalism. The prayers of the Mass reinforce the idea that the saints are there to intercede for us, ever ready for contact, like websites. And we're only too happy to put them to work.
But the scriptures of All Saints Day tell another tale. They can help us get back in touch with the original importance of this day.
The first reading probably captures the vision best (Rev 7:2-4, 9-14). There we meet a huge crowd from every nation and language. They stand before the Lamb of God, holding palm branches, and they wear white robes. The Lamb of God is, of course, Jesus. The palm branches are a sign that these are martyrs who have won victory in the sports arena of life. The garments were made white, we learn a few verses later, when the martyrs washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb. Next Sunday's first reading envisions the saints giving praise to God, not helping us find lost car keys or choosing the right HMO. They may do that too, but their first business seems to be worshiping the Lamb of God.
Catholics often treat saints as if we expect something from them. All Saints Day shows us that we share something with them.
In life and in death the saints are our models. They lived single-minded in the service of God, and willfully shed their blood. Now they do what we should do. They praise God. When we were baptized we received a white garment, and we were instructed to bring it unstained to heaven (cf. Revelation 3:4-5). That white garment is an excellent symbol of All Saints Day, a day on which we look to the saints not just for intercession but for example, for help in keeping our garment clean, so that we may join them one day at the throne of the One who alone deserves our praise.
Father Paul Turner is pastor of St. John Francis Regis Parish, Kansas City.
Daily Scripture ReadingsThirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sunday, October 25
Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18
Psalms 34:2-3, 17-19, 23
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Monday, October 26
Ephesians 4:32 - 5:8
Psalms 1:1-4, 6
Tuesday, October 27
Wednesday, October 28
Thursday, October 29
Psalms 144:1-2, 9-10
Friday, October 30
Saturday, October 31
Psalms 42:2-3, 5
Luke 14:1, 7-11
All Saints Day, Sunday, November 1
Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14
1 John 3:1-3